On Hunger Games and the Road to Dystopia

This blog was begun well over a year ago after reading the book The Hunger Games and viewing the movie on the big screen. Only now am I brave enough to finish it:

Being disturbed by a movie or book is not new to me. It took years for me not to remember scenes from the black and white 1958 movie, A Night to Remember. It was the dramatic, visual telling of the sinking of the Titanic. It so haunted me, I never wanted to see Kate and Leo in the more recent Titanic. Especially not in 3D!

I remember being disturbed by Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies. Now I add to the list The Hunger Games. All through the night after seeing the film, I thought about how the story was so plausible it was scary. The book is published by Scholastic, long known to be a publisher of good children’s and young adult literature. I suppose for young people who have cut their teeth on Harry Potter and violent video graphics, the sci-fi bent of the story is just more of the same. But to me, this story makes a social statement that calls for some prayerful reflection.

That an elitist upper class would control food, shelter, security for a broad underclass is frightening. The cartoonish ruling class, wrapped in ego and narcissism, dressed to nines, plush with choices have left few choices available to the many who inhabit the rest of the regions of creation. Power and self-serving aligned with privilege, opportunity and cunning have created a world out of balance, bereft of brotherhood and good will for all.

While Utopia may be fantasy, a global community where every creature and place is valued and protected,  every heart is loved, and inclusion and acceptance are daily fare is not. Pollyanna me. My vision of such a place is a vision of the Kingdom of God where all God’s creation lives a unity beyond ego and self-interest and where the interdependence of creatures is known and appreciated, where utter dependence on God’s grace and mercy is praised and thanked with gracious lives that share the goodness rather than working to keep it all for ourselves.

Call me crazy, but I hear Jesus’ words with such a bent. The skeptical disciple asks, “Lord, when did I see you?” You saw me at the food bank, you saw me in the prison, you saw me at the intersection of Glenwood and 440, you saw me trying to get an ID at the DMV, You saw me under the bridge by the tracks in the woods under the tarp, you saw me in the face of the child with a bloated belly, an empty bowl and flies on her face, you saw me on television, bloody and screaming after the latest bomb went off.

The man in the back of the room said out loud: “You just have to feed yourself,” as the discussion of food and eating habits turned away – in my hearing –  from any notion of responsibility to the nation and the world for feeding the hungry. I don’t think he had a pink wig on; I didn’t turn around to see. If this kind of feeling is growing among us, we are paving a road to Dystopia which is in the opposite direction of the Kingdom of God. Food is not a bargaining chip, even though there are warlords and profiteers who might use it as such.

The plenty of God’s creation is a fragile blessing. Working to corner the market on it is a slippery slope. Not until we discuss, dialogue, and proceed in humility and faith, can we build sustainability, care for creation, and grow the Kingdom God intends. End of sermon.

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Psalm and Solace

It’s likely that no one on the planet has not seen the pictures and heard the reports of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Exploitive and heart-breaking scenes of anguish and anger have flooded the media, taking us into the pain of tragedy, mystery, and sudden loss. The rawness of such grief in itself grieves me, especially when I hear the cry of the brokenhearted. The reporter captured the grieving woman’s words, “My gods have failed me…” While I have great sadness for the loss and unanswered questions of this unfolding tragedy, it is her words that locate my deepest grief: “My gods have failed me.”

I have been with the suffering and dying. I have been at the bedside in death and seen response that is very different than the responses I have seen on television in the past three weeks. Of course, anger is part of grief. Of course, questioning is part of the process. Especially in sudden and unexpected death, there is shock. I myself have buckled in the face of such loss. The difference is that I worship a God who does not fail me. I worship a God who comes to me and to the world in quiet comfort, solace for the grief stricken soul.

The psalms of the Lenten Season remind us that God is steadfast in mercy and grace. Psalm 121 – “I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come. My help comes from the Lord…” our keeper in the grief and loss. Psalm 23 – “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.” Psalm 130 – “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord hear my cry… Hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is steadfast love.” I speak the words of these psalms to my television screen and pray for those whose pictures I see and even though I do not know their names, God does. I trust God to come to them, even if they cannot name God as God, and lift them from their distress and heal them in this great hurt and un-knowing.

Healing is God’s work in the world and has been since the dawning of time. Redemption, reconciliation, healing is what Christ brings. In Christ’s healing grace, we are strengthened to keep on keeping on. To find life beyond loss and to remember that the circumstances of this world, this material world, do not always work for us and our ease of existence. It is God who works for us and for good in the world. Strength for the journey is God with us.

How do we respond to the current events of the broken world around us? Landslide and loss – lost plane and mystery – land-grabbing and treaty breaking – sudden death and anguish – war and more war…. Unending suffering: the common-denominator of the human condition.

Enter the Christ event, suffering, dying, rising with a promise to come again. May Christ rise again, in me and in you that we may give witness to solace that soothes the broken places and righteousness that leads the way out of wilderness. Find a psalm for your day; Sing a song of hope and praise. Amen.

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The Drumbeat of Peace

China is “boosting its defense budget by 12.2 percent” in the coming year. So says the budget report released at the annual meeting of the People’s Congress last week. Scott Pelley of CBS News talked about how it has been ten years since a western reporter has been allowed to ask a question to the Party Leader at the Congress. Seth Doane asked about the increase in defense funding. What is the reason?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Fu Ling, Party Chair, responds to Doane’s question: “It takes power to maintain and preserve peace.” And so it is with the world’s superpowers. And so it has been throughout history. As long as we have the guns and the manpower and the nuclear weapons and the nuclear submarines and so on and so forth, peace is possible.

So what happens when the power wanes?  The Ancient Greeks and Romans know what happens. Power rises and falls in the world. As long as there is power to maintain borders, a country stands; when that is gone, the game ends. The world turns round and round; the players may change but the story does not. Truthfully, neither do the outcomes.

Over 20 years ago, I was leading a brief worship service at Methodist College to open the Annual Meeting of United Methodist Women in North Carolina. It was October just after the war in Iraq had begun. I designed the worship as a Vigil for Peace. A dear friend came to me after the worship. Her husband served a church in Fayetteville where there were many members who were part of the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg. She said something to me that I have never forgotten, “You know, members of the 82nd Airborne think they ARE the peacemakers.”  I understand, and since that time have worked to carefully walk the tightrope between what I know and what I believe.

What I know is that there are noble and brave men and women who throughout history have given themselves to the work of freedom and security. Many have made ultimate sacrifices of their lives, limbs, mental health and more on my behalf. I am a beneficiary of their sacrifice and I give thanks for them.

What I believe is that we humans have never tried the ways of peace spoken by the prophet Isaiah long ago:

Come, let us go up to the house of the Lord… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths… He shall judge between the nations and decide for many peoples and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  (From Isaiah 2)

When Jesus is telling his disciples farewell, he tells them that the Advocate will come among them, teaching them. Jesus gives them peace as a parting gift. “Peace I leave with you, my peace, not as the world gives, but as I give to you.” Then he calls them to be unafraid.

What does evil do in the face of fearlessness, the way of peace? Does it sulk away into shadow? Can it even look at itself in the face of righteousness? Or like Javert in Les Miserables, in the face of a good and righteous Jean Valjean, give itself to death?  The blood of the martyrs tell part of the story of peace. Is the peace of God even possible as long as human pride exists?

Throughout these 40 Days of Lent, find a place of peace in your own spirit and reflect on your notions of peace. Hear the drumbeat of peace through out all of history. To what is it calling you?

 

 

 

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Rethinking Church: A Lesson from Disney

Our recent week away ended with three days cruising on the Disney Dream with our children and grandchildren. During those three days, I gave a lot of thought to the ways of the Disney operation. Smiling people, gracious welcomes, service and cleanliness, attentiveness to detail were obvious everywhere. Of course, there is a lot of money involved in creating what some call an “artificial world,” a contrived community not representative of the way life really is. I guess that is why they call it a Magic Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is not magic. Rather it is a reality of living God’s grace among a people who are gentle, kind, patient, just, peace-full, generous, grateful, caring, attentive to the needs of others and to all creation. God’s Kingdom is a people of Christ-bearers who seek the least and the lost, who lose ego and yield control, who abide in contented peace, who know when enough is enough, and who leave all the judgment of others to God alone.

The escape to Disney and to a few days of contented kingdom living is really a call to up our game in the rest of the world. Where are all the smiling faces and the generous and grateful people this week? Where is the hospitality of welcome and the attention to the needs of others among us? Of course, there are pockets and glimpses we see around us. But pockets do not a garment make and glimpses are not a full picture of God’s intended Kingdom.

Is it part of the plan that we should always be on the way? Always reaching for the wholeness beyond? Should we not be stronger rather than weaker in our witness now that the world has seen Christ’s glory for over 2,000 years? What awakening does God call us to in the Lenten season that begins this week? What ways need to be turned from? What new ways need to be turned to?

In the sermon we heard last week in a church in Florida, the pastor was preaching a series on Rethinking Church. The call to Rethink Church is a vision statement of United Methodism that, among others, risks being lost in deafened ears and lukewarm hearts. Rev. Williamson was using the book, UnChristian, as a basis for some of his thought. He focused on the judgmentalism of a church that excludes people and narrows the scope of grace to include only me, mine, and those like me.

In a song that concluded the worship, there was a line on the screen that sticks with me. It is a song about building a kingdom and the line that says, “until we win the nation back.”  While I question whether Christians ever really had the nation “won”, there has certainly among us been a comfortable hegemony that lulled us into not only a great blind comfort, but also an audacity of faith that claims a priority that sounds a lot like judgment and self-righteousness. Ouch! No wonder the world turns to Disney.

The only way to win a nation and win a world to Christ is through love, authentic, not glamorized, genuine, agape love that does not judge or limit itself, but rather welcomes, holds, and cares for all people until the world is healed. This is a world that extends beyond three days on the Disney Dream.

Perhaps the Lenten discipline calling us is a discipline of consideration of how we think about and treat other people, how we regard the resources of creation, how we are attentive to God’s call upon our lives. Rethink Church. How are we doing? How are we being? The small, small world is watching; so is God. Amen.

 

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Next, The Fiddles

On the table beside my bed is a book by Elizabeth Kolbert titled: “The Sixth Extinction.” It is not a religious book, not theological, not Spiritual Formation. Rather it more education bordering on scientific expose’ written by a journalist who has both curiosity and heart.

There were only two copies of this book at my favorite corner bookstore, Quail Ridge. This book is not likely to be a runaway hit. There are some who would call it “liberal rant.” There are others of us who would call it prophetic… a wake-up call for the world.

Kolbert’s thesis is first that the world since its creation has experienced five great extinctions, the last being the extinction of the dinosaurs. Secondly, that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction, in which the long-term survival of humanity is in question. There is a quote from Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford ecologist, in the last chapter that pretty well sums up Kolbert’s theory: “In the pushing the other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

 It might be easy to dismiss the whole conversation about extinctions except for the fact that extinction is staring us in the face. Northern birds are seeking habitat in southern states. Whitey owls in the south are a new reality. The moose population in the Northwest is dwindling and disappearing into nothingness. There are species in zoos around the world who can only exist in captivity.

The world around us is changing quickly. God’s creation will adapt to habitat disruptions and extreme conditions, it always has. Over the centuries have come and gone many wonders of the long ago. We are part of that wonder. Yet we behave as if we have stepped outside our place in the story as if we are static, a forever people, above and in control of the world. Me thinks we have forgotten our place.

The inertia of change may be unstoppable at this point, I don’t know. Here is what I do know: When Genesis was written and a people wrote about the responsibility to care for creation as stewards, they did not mistake “dominion” for domination. They did not see themselves as self-made and in control of all things that moved upon the earth.  Rather they saw themselves as a people utterly dependent on God, and inter-dependent with other people and all creation. They saw themselves as part of a whole, co-creators and tenders of God’s work.

The story records human triumph and human failure, rises and falls through the pages and ages. Still, darkness covers us as we persist in pushing one another around, ignoring blatant signs, choosing war and verbal bombasity, holding up flags and mantras of me-and-my-way.  Next will come the fiddles and the cake of blindness.

Our faith calls us to a new vision, a new way that is God’s way. Can we be part of a solution? Do we have the faith? The guts? Amen.

 

 

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Midnight Clear

There are seasons of words and seasons of silence. For me, since October of this year, words have been hard to come by. My words got buried in busy-ness and grief over the loss of a beloved dog, Toasty. Some of my words were replaced by worry, some by sadness, some by pain. The truncated Advent Season afforded little time to sit and reflect and find Christ’s healing and peace. That changed in the singing of one song on the 4th Sunday of Advent.

“It Came upon the Midnight Clear” has not ever really been in my top ten Christmas Carols. But Sunday, its words swept over my heart and hearing like a balm. I heard the invitation and promise of Christmas as if it were offered to me personally.  The Babel sounds have been all too loud in my ears this past couple of months. In 1849 when Edmund Sears penned these words, he spoke a great truth of the human condition. The noise and pace and weight of the world grow heavy. Life can indeed be a “crushing load.” Mr. Sears, you nailed it.

Today is Christmas Eve 2013, a day we sometimes spend measuring what is done and what is left undone. Somehow Christmas Eve marks the turning point. Today we are invited to “rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.” When all the frenzy ends and the world quiets, we listen and taste and see. A small candle in my hand reminds me that Light has come, is come, and will come again, and I hold it in my hand tonight. You will hold it too.

Breathe deeply tonight the crisp cold air of Christmas. Sit and rest by the weary road. Hear the angels sing their song of glory, their song of hope. O for the day when peace shall indeed be born among us. O for the day when our song shall be a song of love that we send back to God.

The words below are the words of “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” This is a prayer for all of us as we wait for Christ to be born:

“And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the  climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing, O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.”

Happy Christmas to you and yours. May your heart be filled with peace. May words of thanksgiving and praise, hope and joy fill the world, just like the song the angels sing.

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The Way

The great Egret sat in the pine tree next to the front porch. All at once his catch was in sight. He dove with great intention into the river water with one purpose on his mind. One purpose that is in his DNA to accomplish… Catch the fish.

He swept the water with a vengeance. Spreading his great wings to stay afloat until the catch was in hand – or talon, as it were. He arose victorious from the water with a fairly large Croaker in his claws. Proud he was as he flew back and forth between the piers. I could only imagine what was in his mind. “Now what do I do with this?”

We who are hungry sometimes get ahold of a “fish” than is too big to swallow all at once. When we hear teachings that need great un-packing; when we have experiences greater than we have known before. So we fly around asking the same question: Now what do I do with this?

Great teachers, mentors, great awareness of God, great worship in a beloved community are a big catch. We are created with hunger for union with God and all creation. It’s in our DNA. So we watch and wait for opportunity to taste and see. Such opportunity was there for a community in the NC 5-Day Academy for Spiritual Formation this past week. A spacious place was before us where teaching, worship, community and God with us could fill our want. It was indeed a big “Fish.”

Now the work is digesting it all, one small piece at a time. As pilgrims on the way, we travel one step at a time, one bite at a time. We are always in a process of becoming. Holiness is around us and in us in our journey. Sitting with the catch is the work we are called to do.

The giant Egret eventually dropped his fish; it was simply too much for him to swallow and he did not stop flying around long enough to chew his fish in small bites. Small – bites, steps, understandings, changes – makes the difference in how we are filled and made whole. Small is the way.For all the beloved community, for all the Virtual Church, may smallness be your way to life and wholeness. We are together in the journey. God bless us all. Amen.

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Ardie

Henry Arden Stroud was my first cousin. He was what we in Eastern North Carolina would call “a mess.” He was never without a smile and a good word, a story true or false. Who knew? Ardie was born one year to the day after I was born. I always felt that connected us in a most special way. Ardie died August 26, 2013, at the VA Hospital in Durham, NC,

Ardie was my Daddy’s brother’s second son. We cousins lived in Ayden… within three blocks of one another. We grew up together. We walked to Mrs. Buck’s store on Second Street. Ardie always somehow had money. He bought grape chewing gum. I had never tasted grape chewing gum. Ardie said. “Have a taste.” And he gave me the gum right out of his mouth. It was delicious. That’s what cousins do… they share. Thank you, Ardie.

Ardie married a wonderful friend of ours. We were thrilled to have Marlene as a sister to the Strouds. I don’t know the year, but about the time Ardie and Marlene’s first child was expected, Ardie went to Viet Nam. Ardie was always a dreamer, kinda like my own Dad. Big stories, big dreams that may have bordered on fantasy. Still, to be brought into big dreams, visions and wonder is not always a bad thing.

When Ardie returned from Viet Nam, he was different. Errant somehow and more elusive in spirit. Even we, who did not see him often, saw the change. Still I loved him.

His marriage failed. Multiple marriages failed… even the marriage with Ruthie who loved the big Gone With the Wind Parties we all enjoyed. Finally somebody somewhere acknowledged that, though he was not a combat warrior, he had been exposed to Agent Orange. That explained part of it.

The last time I saw Ardie was at a family reunion. He seemed fit and well as he ever was. And he was his usual happy, fun to be around self. That day he gave me framed newspaper clippings from our grandparent’s engagement and wedding. He told me he thought I might be the only one who would value it. I did and I do even more now.

Some might say Ardie was a ne’er do well. Mentally ill. A dreamer and teller of tales fantastic. Meds might have helped. Tonight I remember someone who was dealt genes, not unlike those of my Dad and me, who hope and dream and have passion for what the world can be. Ardie grew up in the Methodist Church, the church in which I am a pastor. For whatever his shortcomings, Ardie was a child of God, precious to me and to many.

I pray, Dear Cousin Ardie, that today you rest in the arms of Almighty God. I pray that you have found peace in your spirit. Thank you for sharing your gum with me. Thank you for sharing your generous abandon. Even though I know you should have been more responsible, I will tell you… responsibility is sometimes over-rated. Thank you for the joy you gave witness to. Rest in peace. Amen.

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Damascus

O God, your people have not changed. Persecution and pain rule and human arrogance abounds.  Your people “have committed two evils: they have forsaken God, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”  Jeremiah has a pretty good assessment of the human condition and the propensity for apostasy.

Damascus in the first century was a place where persecution was daily fare. Witness Paul as recorded in Acts of the Apostles.  Paul is breathing threats and murder, a status quo voice railing against a minority who are following a different way. It is not until light from heaven and the voice of God intervene and he sees Christ that his life is turned around and set straight. Change happens only as God’s voice is heard and Christ is before him in the way he moves forward in life.

The scenes from Damascus in the past week have been horrifying, chilling and reminiscent of tales of the Holocaust. Bodies shrouded in white cloth, lined up in rows wait for grievers and burial. We know chemical weapons were used. We speculate that this crime was committed by those commanded by Bashar Assad, whom most of the world agrees is a ruler out of control, except by an ego whose moral compass is apparently pointed to due-hell.

Responses from world powers, including the United States, are moral outrage and disdain. Even today, warships are travelling to the waters off the coast of Syria. Big Sticks and Bravado are rising around the world, and off we go again. My question is: Where are the peacemakers? I was told once that the 82nd Airborne consider themselves the Peacemakers. When the jets fly over us toward the landing field at Cherry Point Air Station, we remember the mantra of the corps, “That’s the sound of freedom.” I know I am beneficiary of the sacrifice of these peacekeepers. Yet with all the firepower, all the sabers, all the ships and missiles, and young people going off to wars, there is no peace.

Damascus is at risk; Syria and the Middle East are at risk. All the world is at risk. What is the right response? How do we move forward as people beloved by God to give witness to the peace that Jesus is? Anointed Messiah, Prince of Peace, Light of the World, Life Abundant, how do we live your way?

Before the world falls in a way that cannot be put together again, let us pray God will speak to worldly power in ways that change our world through responses based on love and the value of all creation. Raise up a people, O God, who hear your voice and seek your ways. Turn us from building our own cisterns to drinking from the wells of your Living Water. Give us assurance that you are present with the innocents and the voiceless in their pain and despair. Forgive our unbridled arrogance and self-assurance. Grow the seeds of kindness in us, seeds you sowed in us when we were formed. Make us strong in you that we may rise up, not with big sticks and swords, but with invitation to healing and wholeness as the community of the world, a community that inhabits a very small planet. We rest in your care and provision. Love us through our human failings, we pray. Amen.

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The Book Club

Several years ago I was part of a book club of clergy women and other women from various churches in the District, and the Conference Staff. From the beginning it was decided that we would read fiction. Fiction, truthfully, is not my go-to read. I mostly read non-fiction, theology, sociology, even mathematics and physics. (Sorry, I am boring.) I had to force myself to read fiction. So I read books like My Sister’s Keeper, The Help, Middlesex (not fiction, but group approved) and I began to see the importance of connecting to culture and humanity, the value of being part of the world in a way good fiction brings us into.

One of the disciplines of this new insight borne of my book club experience is that every year I make a trip to Quail Ridge Books to buy at least a few of the Freshmen reads of the year. Universities in the area require a read from their freshmen, a read that will spur thought and conversation among those who are just beginning their baccalaureate educations. Books our college freshmen are required to read are amazing! What Happened on the Way to War has been on the list for more than one year. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was on the list for 2012. The story of HeLa cells is all over the news even today!

The book I have begun to read is Let the Great World Spin, which is the Duke Freshman read for 2013. (Sorry, again. I go to Duke first.) I have just started reading today. There is a paragraph on page 20, in the reverie of my afternoon, just as I have sat down to read… Corrigan is remembered by his brother who is telling the story, “Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where he was supposed to go. He stayed where he was needed. He took little or nothing along…. What Corrigan needed, wanted was a totally believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth – the filth, the war, the poverty, was that life could be capable of small beauties.”

Corrigan’s brother concludes that he stands amazed and confounded that Corrigan is about seeking light in darkness, triumph in tragedy, “optimism against all evidence.” This work of fiction, that hundreds of Duke Freshmen 2013 are required to read seems to be leading to something important for them to discuss and reflect on. This story seems to be pointing to THE STORY: Salvation, Redemption, Healing, Wholeness.

Each chapter takes interesting twists and turns. I feel like I am turning a kaleidoscope and don’t yet know the design I will end up with. Same colors, different shapes and arrangements. The story is unfolding with surprise, shock, complexity. The great world spins indeed.

We are people of a story, not fiction, but emerging truth. God in Christ is Light in Darkness, Wholeness in brokenness, Healing in hurt, and Beauty in that which is shameful and ugly around us. I have not quite finished this book, but I am hopeful that this work of fiction will point to something profound and true. There are people among us who point us to goodness, righteousness, truth that is Christ. There are people who do the right thing. And forgiveness for those who don’t. I have not yet figured who the hero in the story is. Perhaps it is the storyteller, the one who keeps at the telling.

I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of everyday life from a writer of fiction. How does right prevail? Complacency and over-confidence in answers do not strengthen faith in a spinning world. Who would think a work of fiction would prod my thought so much. Perhaps my life and my faith get rigid and stale in my non-fiction-ness. I am thankful for the shake-up. It’s renewing.

 


 


 

 

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